Image: Protest outside last week's Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space annual black tie dinner in London's Park Lane. Credit: Lydia Noon.
While Brits have grown accustomed to turbulence in political fairyland, last week the action moved from Whitehall to hotels, and the subject matter has been the UK’s future as cheerleader for free trade.
No less than six cabinet ministers attended Davos’ World EconomicTrade Forum, resulting in Britain’s first potential post-Brexit trade deal with Israel and, an announcement by the foreign secretary that £2.5 million would be pledged to support the UN peace process in Yemen, followed a day later by, rather embarrassingly, a swanky “arms dealers’ dinner” in London’s Park Lane with many on the guest list enabling the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen.
And so, as the Brexit engine rumbles on, so does one of the most controversial and disturbing aspects of it: the dealings of the UK’s weapons industry with unscrupulous regimes.
Free trade agreements outside of the EU mean less regulation, and dodgy deals bode well for many countries in the business of buying weapons.
Business and politics: convenient bedfellows
The Government has identified arms sales as a priority for the brave new world post-Brexit, and a global Britain, or arguably a more desperate Britain, looks set to invest in this sector. Europe accounts for few military contracts so there is little downside to the changing market, according to the UK’s trade group for arms companies, euphemistically called the Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space association (ADS).
“Europe will continue to be important, but there are perhaps other areas where there is now a bigger incentive to develop longer-term relationships. Brexit provides the circumstances and the catalyst for faster and more efforts”, said ADS in August 2016.
One of ADS’ members, British multinational BAE systems, is similarly nonchalant. The UK’s largest manufacturer says that Brexit is “just not that big a deal”, and is excited about frictionless trade. It is worth noting that the corporation’s main customers are Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK, with Europe only accounting for 8%eight percent of its income in 2017.
Theresa May set up five business councils in November 2018 in order for companies to advise her on “post-Brexit opportunities”. The chair of BAE systems, Roger Carr, along with Rolls- Royce chair Ian Davis, co-lead the industrial, infrastructure, and manufacturing council, which is to meet three times a year.
Meanwhile, ADS and its member companies, which include Airbus, missiles manufacturer MBDA and G4S, among others, invited MPs to meet them in parliament on 9 January, to plead the business case for voting for Theresa May’s ultimately doomed EU withdrawal deal, which was rejected on 15 January.
ADS chief executive Paul Everitt has spoken of the continued uncertainty of Brexit being damaging to business investment, forcing companies to implement costly contingency plans, while Airbus warned this week that the company could pull out of the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit, or perhaps even with one. It’s worth noting that Airbus, which manufacturers commercial and military aircraft, has been propped up by both British government and EU subsidies in recent years.
Taxpayer subsidies don’t end there. An extra £2 billion was allocated to the international trade budget last October to increase Britain’s presence across the world, of which touting arms deals is a large part.
A very Brexit race to the bottom
In the 12 months following the 2016 EU referendum, Britain cleared export licences worth £2.9 billion to 30 countries with oppressive regimes – such as Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan – up almost a third on the previous year where export licences were granted to just 17 such countries, according to research by Campaign Against the Arms Trade and inews.
The UK’s weapons trade was worth a total of £74 billion in 2017, with exports reaching £41 billion, providing direct employment for 380,000 people.
At the DSEI arms fair in London, the largest of its kind in the world, that year, international trade secretary and staunch Brexit supporter, Liam Fox, insisted in his keynote speech that Britain had measures in place to allow “ethical defence exports”, worth £5.9 billion a year to the British economy.
Fast forward 16 months and Fox has just secured Britain’s first post-Brexit “in principle” trade deal with Israel while at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The announcement on 24 January comes after a mega year of trade between the two countries. Plans are afoot for trade meetings in London with Israeli government ministers in the coming months.
The UK’s increasingly closer ties with Israel include rising levels of arms sales. In 2017, the government issued a record £221 million worth of weapons licenses to British defence companies exporting missiles, sniper rifles and other equipment to the regime. These deals flew in the face of international conventions condemning Israel’s human rights violations against its Palestinian population and in the West Bank and Gaza.
Black tie dinner
On 23 January, the cream of Britain’s arm traders attended an annual black tie dinner at Grosvenor House Hotel in London. The ADS drinks reception and three-course dinner brought MPs, military figures and arms dealers together, with tickets costing £225 for members and £450 for non-members.
Government minister for trade and export promotion Rona Fairhead, and former Labour Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, spoke at the event, along with BAE Systems chief executive Charles Woodburn. The multinational company was also one of the sponsors of the event.
Rona Fairhead works with Liam Fox on the UK’s export strategy, and has spoken of her ambition to increase UK exports from 30 percent of GDP to 35 percent.
Alan Johnson, meanwhile, was quoted on the ADS event web page, which has since been taken down, saying that during his after-dinner speech, he would: “reflect on my time in Parliament, drawing parallels with programmes such as ‘Yes Minister and “The thick of it”.
Campaign against the Arms Trade and Stop the Arms Fair organised a demonstration outside the venue highlighting the complicity of the UK in Yemenis’ suffering. Chants of “Arms dealers feast while Yemen is starved” meant that none of the attendees could plead ignorance: over 14 million people risk starvation in the ravaged country.
Britain’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia garner a great deal of controversy: the government has issued £5 billion of licenses for military exports to the regime since it started bombing Yemen in 2015, and, despite widespread calls for an arms embargo from many politicians, campaign groups, Yemeni activists and members of the European Parliament, Theresa May’s government is undeterred.
Police pushed, pulled and dragged protesters out of the way as they disrupted the entrance of the largely middle-aged, white male guest-list. They formed protective lines around those attending, ushering them into the hotel in a show of misplaced loyalty, symbolic of the state’s ongoing support of repressive regimes.
On asking three men in black tie if they knew why people were protesting, one said that he worked in civil aviation; it had nothing to do with him, another, angrily: “you don’t know what you’re talking about”, while the third said that he made planes, not weapons.
There’s no hiding from the fact though that many of the 1000 UK-registered companies in ADS make and sell weaponry – whether to countries on watchlists or to countries compiling the watchlists. Some, like Northrop Grumman, also offer personnel support, in the form of training the Saudi military and providing technical services to the Ministry of the National Guard.
Wilfully detached from the horrors of war, obstinately focusing on what the electorate want to hear – job creation, British-made, contributing to the economy – those in the business of sustaining it must start listening to those affected by its consequences.
“All across Yemen people are suffering and dying. This is a very, very dirty war”, said Sarah, at the demonstration. From Aden, a city in southern Yemen, she has lived in the UK for 19 years. “I hope our voice can reach those responsible for what’s happening and I hope that they stop what they are doing.
I asked Sarah whether she’s worried that Brexit will increase the UK’s involvement in the onslaught on Yemen.
“I can’t say much about the politics, I can just say the human side. I hope it doesn’t get worse under Brexit, I pray to God it doesn’t. I know that the people have nothing to do with it and it is just some who are responsible for it – I hope that they will stop selling these weapons and look at the people that are dying.”
In an ill-timed move, the day before the arms dealers’ dinner, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt announced an extra £2.5 million to support the UN peace process in Yemen. This brings the total amount of British financial support to Yemeni people to a paltry £570 million since 2015.
Hunt added that Britain would support the “deployment and coordination of demining and explosive ordinance disposal capacity in Hodeidah city”, explosives that may not – and should not – have been sold to the Saudi regime by the UK – but clarity on that, thanks to the government’s opaque licensing system, is near impossible to ascertain.